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Agents are becoming a feature of Australia’s domestic higher education sector, driven by new business challenges and “earn or learn” welfare rules.

In recent years there has been a surge in new companies that market courses on behalf of colleges. Sources say they are responding to soaring demand sparked by training requirements in the country's social welfare programs, and opportunities created by increased access to income-contingent loans for vocational education programs.

The change also reflects the slump in international education exports, with agents -- long an integral part of overseas student recruitment -- now seeking domestic revenue streams. It is also driven by the increasing popularity of online education, with colleges sourcing students from across the country.

When the Australian Skills Quality Authority examined 400 college websites during last year’s marketing audit, as many as 70 turned out to belong to brokerage firms rather than training providers.

“It’s certainly quite a phenomenon now,” said Chris Robinson, the agency's chief commissioner.

A consultant, Claire Field, said marketing agents were particularly active in Queensland, mostly selling vocational diplomas. “With the higher education reforms, there’s no doubt we’ll see more activity,” she said.

This is already happening, with high-flying Acquire Learning marketing degrees in ­accounting, arts, business, community services and information technology from Federation University and more than a dozen private colleges.

Melbourne-based ProLearn recruits students for Victoria University’s graduate certificate in management.

Tertiary education consultant Brendan Sheehan said SEEK Learning’s alliance with Swinburne University of Technology was another example, and more such relationships were inevitable. “There are all these people who have built up expertise in recruiting internationally. The model’s there. The question is, does it matter?”

Critics say it does, because marketing companies are preying on naïve young people by persuading them to sign up to ­courses with no upfront fees -- unaware they will face substantial debts down the track.

And commentators say colleges are using agents to sidestep contract requirements -- such as bans on offering free computers as enrollment inducements -- because these rules apply only to registered education and training organizations.

Adult Learning Australia's chief executive, Sally Thompson, said a government crackdown on Victoria’s open training market had induced some private providers to work with “front” marketing companies.

“This allows them to get around the strict rules in regards to marketing,” she said. “The state simply can’t keep up with monitoring the scams.”

An Education Department spokesman said Victorian government-subsidized colleges were not allowed to offer enrollment incentives, directly or indirectly, with breaches “treated seriously.”

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